Tag Archives: hypertext

Hypertext to Cybertext

Cyber, cybertext, hypertext – these are all terms that we hear repeatedly, but rarely do we analyze the definitions and differences between these terms. Aarseth attempts to do this in his book Cybertext.

“Hypertext,” a term coined by Ted Nelson in 1965, refers to a mechanical system of reading and writing where text is organized to be read in a sequence that is chosen by the reader. Reading and writing become a single process. This use of hypertext can be seen as postmodern and never ending. Furthermore, a reader cannot just sit down and read hypertext; they must gain an intuition of the spatial structure. Notice that this term was used significantly before the use of computers. Hypertext is best known as part of a computer text, but it is not necessarily so. Aarseth talks about a conflict of hypertext where the computer’s purpose is to aid in user freedom. However, what happens when hypertext, through confusion and reader responsibility, takes away our freedom?

“Cybertext” comes from the book Cybernetics by Norbert Winer. Cybertext allows for an expansion of the limits of hypertext, widening to a perspective on all forms of textuality. The “Hypertext Murder Case,” evaluates Aarseth’s work and defines cybertext as a term that includes hypertext but also expands to all forms of computer based writing. Cybertext becomes the most powerful computer machine (a Turning) while hypertext is also a machine, albeit the least powerful one.

Computers have always been integrated into my student life. Therefore, it is hard to really conceptualize hypertext on paper, or what that would really look like. I think that our analysis of these technologies may be impeded by the fact that we take them for granted and do not see a true before and after scenario.

Aarseth connects these terms by asking us to analyze technologies beyond just their practical uses. An emerging media technology is not important in itself. We should really be studying what they can tell us about human connection and evolution. The concept of cybertext allows us to really study politics and communication, analyzing the new ways that users and authors have power over content. I may have especially liked this part because it directly connects to my thesis. However, I do think it is interesting and important. The fact that Interaction Fiction did not stick as a popular genre allows us to analyze societies reluctance to abandon the narrative structure. As a society we have a hard time with the avante garde, the new, and the different. We all want a concrete beginning, middle, and end, with little guesswork and a conflict that arises, yet is resolved. I even found myself frustrated with the Interactive fiction, reluctant to really explore, and constantly searching for a linear direction of the projects. Will we ever leave our attachment to the narrative?

poetry machines

I keep thinking back to Landow’s comment on Vannevar Busch’s “poetic” vision for information technology:

“Busch wanted to replace the essentially linear fixed methods that had produced the triumphs of capitalism and industrialism with what are essentially poetic machines–machines that work according to analogy and association, machines that capture and create the anarchic brilliance of human imagination.”

It’s odd to think of computers as having “poetic” properties, since on a deep functional level, computing seems like the apex of logic and rationality–pure units of information working together to create functional systems with predictable effects and as little “noise” as possible. To make the machine work we are still very much beholden to linear, mechanical processes and, in a very literal way, the capitalist-industrial assembly line. But on the surface level of software and the user interface, as Busch so aptly observed, things get a lot less objective/linear and a lot more subjective/idiosyncratic, yielding the flexible and intuitive ways to organize and display coded information encoded in today’s personal computers, hence the open-ended nature of the interface and the metaphorical “poetry” of the machine . The “poetic” underpinnings of the user experience enable us not only to organize our documents more efficiently, but also to explore the  expressive potential of the interface-as-medium.

So what happens when we use poetic machines to write poetry? Hypertext experimental writing, a la Joyce, Jackson and Strickland. I’m using the term ‘poetry’ fairly broadly, in reference to the fact that these authors seem as concerned with the aesthetics of hypertext as with its apparent meaning or narrative function.

Although their hypertext projects are ostensibly narrative, I found myself mentally placing them less in the context of traditional literary fiction and more in the context of avant-garde experimental writing: for example, Gertrude Stein’s stream-of-consciousness poetry, or William Burroughs’ “cut-ups.” The associations, fragmentations, and surreal non sequiturs these authors attempted to capture in plain text are, in a sense, coded into the basic vocabulary of hypertext.

Working in the hypertext medium forces Joyce et. al. to deal with structures imposed on their narrative by the interface. Sequential, open-ended, multilinear reading is the most obvious consequence of hypertext, and while that in itself could be the subject of many blog posts, I’d also like to note some of more subtle ways in which these narratives are influenced by their mechanism: themes of fragmentation or displacement in time, as well as frequent allusions to “the machine” (for instance, Strickland’s “zeros and ones” motif throughout “The Ballad of Sand and Harry Soot”). Then again, these themes are mostly present at the level of allusions or references within the text–they don’t seem to have had a serious formal impact on the text itself. To me, the surprising thing about this week’s hypertext readings was not how much they differed standard literary fiction, but rather how attached they still were to literary conventions of plot, character, and so forth. There must be people out there writing super crazy avant-garde hyperpoetry. But who?

Explorations of Authorship in Hypertext

Hypertext explores the history of hypertext and the theories behind it while also exploring ideas of authorship. Landon identifies three main points that challenge our preconceived notions of author and reader, which in turn show how technology has integrated and influenced the cultural landscape.

In the first, Landon describes how hypertext blurs the boundary between reader and writer. Describing Barthes ideal text, Landon states, “Changing the ease with which one can orient oneself and pursue individual references with such a context radically changes both the experience of reading and ultimately the nature of that which is read” (4). Not only is the reader becoming the writer by negotiating the direction they want to pursue the text, but by hyperlinking her own passage through the text, the reader is changing the text. Hypertext allows for two ways of reading. In one, the reader links how they please throughout the text determining their own linear structure, with each new reader starting with the same base text. In the second, each new reader could see the hypertext path of the reader before her, which could allow for communal and ongoing authorship.

In the second argument about authorship, Landon shows how hypertext blurs the distinction between annotation and commentary with the actual original text. He states that

“this kind of democratization not only reduces the hierarchal separation between the so-called main text and the annotation, which now exist as independent texts… it also blurs the boundaries of individual texts. In doing so, electronic linking reconfigures our experiences of both author and authorial property, and this reconception of these ideas promises to affect our conceptions of both the authors (and authority) of texts we study and of ourselves as authors” (25).

By allowing a more seamless integration of our annotated sources, we are able to incorporate and recontextualize written works without the original authors permission. Instead of merely giving a quote or a footnote to a previous scholar, hypertext allows us to directly challenge other texts by giving the reader direct access to entire passages and works, if they choose to explore a hyperlinked passage. This makes reading easier, but may make the work of the writer more difficult.

Landon explores the difficulty of writing in hypertext when he discusses Newman’s fear of this new technology. Newman thinks that in hypertext, “learning is to be without exertion, without attention, without toil; without grounding, without advance, without finishing” (26). Can we trust readers in a hypertext work to really grasp the argument of the writer? Will the reader be plunged into a state of multiplicity that scatters the mind and impedes the reader’s ability to grasp the main argument? Even in the printed word, once the writer puts the pen down, she relinquishes all power in how her text is interpreted. Therefore, the fact that Newman fears for the reader in hypertext is no different than fearing a reader of the printed word will cease to grasp the main argument.